The Whole Story


We all hope to base our judgments on reasoned and accurate consideration, yet on many occasions I find myself backtracking and reversing myself because I made too hasty an assessment of a situation or a person and am forced to admit that I didn’t get the whole story. The question is: “What do we mean by this ‘whole story’?”

Dogen Zenji considers this question again and again in Shobogenzo and I’d like to begin by referencing a fascinating statement he makes in Genjokoan: In seeing color and form and hearing sound with body and mind, although we perceive them intimately (the perception) is not like reflections in a mirror or the moon on the water. When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.1

6Dogen is reminding us that the surface is all there is to a reflection. The back of my head does not appear behind the mirror, nor is there a whole moon in the water. A reflection shows us only the side we are facing and it has no dark side. In our life, however, if we look deeply and listen carefully, our perception reveals a fuller picture of the story. We realize that the part that we see exists in intimate relationship with other aspects of the whole. The “other side” may be dark, but it is there. Though we cannot see them, we assume that these other aspects are what allow the object to express the fulness of its reality. Dogen is telling us that when we see the side that is illuminated we must be careful not to assume that this is all there is. Unlike a reflection, reality is multi-dimensional.

I have a wooden bowl of fruit on the counter of the pass-through between kitchen and living -room. I can see only one side at a time, yet the curve of what I do see and the fruit it appears to contain allow me to think of it as a complete bowl of fruit. If I look at my coffee cup, I actually see only one side, yet that side implies another side, for it successfully contains my coffee. When one side is illuminated, the other is dark. The whole story lies in the co-existence of the two sides.

Even to say “co-existence” is not fully accurate because of our habitual way of thinking. We may have the idea that things have a singular, fixed existence and that therefore all that is possible is a link with another singular existence, a co-existence. It is this type of relationship that we express when we say, “Form is Emptiness” and “Emptiness is Form.” In addition to merely linking form and emptiness, this expression also somehow implies that they are identical, even though we know that they are not.

While not identical, they are necessary to one another. Form is a manifestation of emptiness; emptiness is a condition of form. The whole story is neither solely form nor solely emptiness. It might be better expressed as an event which we name Form/Emptiness. Dogen says that when we say “Form” we have already said “Emptiness,” no need for the “is.” . True reality entails the aspects of both what we see and what we do not see.

2However, since we can see or experience only one aspect at a time, we often err in the way we understand the relationships. We see black as the opposite of white and hate as the opposite of love and this leads us to think of them as being in conflict or competition. We do not see that in actuality they define one another, that they are necessary to one another. Living reality has its existence within the relationships between different facets of the total event. In fact, our ability to conceive of something depends upon comparing what ‘is” with what “is not”

Take for instance, Case 43 of The Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Tung Shan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”

Shan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”

The monk said, “What is the place where there is no cold or heat?

Tung Shan said, ”When it’s cold, the cold kills you; when it’s hot, the heat kills you.”2

There are a variety of ways of interpreting this exchange, but in terms of our discussion, it is useful to think of the place where “the cold kills you” as a place where only cold exists. Of course, there is no such place, for we cannot conceive of cold without its contrasting aspect, heat. If we eliminate the event cold/hot, neither cold nor heat exist. In the same manner, if we eliminate the event life/death, neither exists. Should there be only cold or only heat, we are killed.

3In a recent reading of Engaging Japanese Philosophy by Thomas Kasulis,3 I came across a term with which I was unfamiliar: soku. Soku apparently appears often within Buddhist writings in an attempt to point to relationships such as those we have been discussing, i.e.“form soku emptiness.”

Japanese Philosophy, A Sourcebook, (JPS) has this to say:

Soku-hi – “A notoriously difficult term to render in English, soku….is a copulative commonly used to link two contrary or contradictory terms in such a way as to indicate that one immediately implies or contains the other, but as A soku B, B soku A to stress the reciprocity of the relationship between the terms.”4

The section of JPS containing quotes from the writings of individuals quotes D.T Suzuki as follows:

In today’s language, we would say that affirmation and negation are “self-identical,” which in fact is the force of the copulative soku. This does not mean the kind of relationship in which one thing here is negated by another thing there. What is there remains there, and what is here remains here, but at the same as we affirm this, we also affirm that what is here is there, and what is there is here.”5

Soku is expressing the full reality of event A/B, B/A . This reality is the reciprocal necessity that binds the side that is illuminated with the side that is dark. It is not one or the other, for each is an aspect of a whole event that cannot take place without both, for they fulfill each other. Yet we all too often make the error of seeing the affirmative and the negative as opposing one another. We say that life and death oppose one another, because we have separated them into two distinct entities, when in truth life and death require one another if their reality as an event is to be realized.

1We find this necessary mutual relationship pointed out again and again in Dogen’s writing. In Bussho, he points out that our full reality is to be both buddha-nature and mu-buddha-nature (not-buddha-nature.) In Bendowa we find “In the buddha-dharma, practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” 6

It is through our daily practice that we discover the fullness of reality and learn to see beyond the single aspect before us at this moment and to understand that other aspects complete the story. Sitting quietly in zazen, we let go of our narrow notions about things. We also gradually come to appreciate the deeper wisdom of the clichés of everyday language: “It’s best to see both sides of the question.” or “Gosh, I guess I didn’t have the complete picture.”

However, as we strive to complete our understanding of the complete picture we must make sure that, although it is a step forward in our understanding, we do not get stuck in our realization of the side that is in darkness. Just as the side that is illuminated is not the whole story, neither is the side that is in darkness. We must beware of becoming attached to a realization of the emptiness of form, for true practice is to live in the knowledge of the mutuality of their existence, yet in no way to deny the everyday face that presents itself as form.

Here is a little story illustrating how this can happen, taken from the biography of Ananda found in The Collated Essentials of the Five Flame Records, compiled in 1252:

The Venerable (Ananda) one day addressed the Buddha, saying “Today I went into town and saw something strange.” The Buddha said, “What did you see that was strange?” Ananda replied, “When I went into town I saw a crowd of happy people performing dances. When I left town all I saw was impermanence. The Buddha said, “Yesterday when I went into town I also saw something strange.” The Venerable said, “I do not know about the strange thing which you saw.” The Buddha said, “When I went into town I saw a crowd of happy people performing dances. When I left town I again saw happy people performing dances.”7

5Ananda was stuck in emptiness. The Buddha understood the whole story.

The Buddhist understanding expressed in the term soku points to the deep relationship between all aspects of reality and suggests that it’s important to cultivate our ability to view things from various perspectives. If in my daily life I try to see what aspects of the situation I might be missing, my actions will be more in tune with that situation. The realization that there is more to the story than what is apparent at first blush opens the door to creativity and flexibility, to new ways of approaching things, an acceptance of alternatives and a sense of deeper engagement with the events that make up our life.

As a child, I never wanted to read just a paragraph or two. The satisfaction was in reading the whole story. That is still true today for all of us.

P.S. This is written in conversation with Koun Franz’ terrific recent article on Dogen’s Zenki.


1. The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, tran. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, State University of New York Press, 2003, p.41

2. The Blue Cliff Record , trans. By Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary, Shambala Publications, 1992, p.258

3. Engaging Japanese Philosophy, A Short History, Thomas P. Kasulis, Univesity of Hawaii Press, 2018, p.423-424

4. Japanese Philosophy, A Sourcebook, edited by James W. Heisig,Thomas P. Kasulis, John C Maraldo, University of Hawaii Press, 2011, p.1264

5. Ibid, p. 215

6.The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, p. 19

7.Record of the Transmission of Illumination, by the Great Ancestor Zen Master Keizan, Volume II

T. Griffith Foulk, Editor-in-Chief, published byThe Administrative Headquarters of Soto Zen Buddhism, Sotoshu Shumucho, 2017, p.480



Tōnen is the Resident Priest Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, ordained in 1994, receiving dharma transmission in 1999 from Tozen Akiyama, and performing zuise at Eiheiji and Sojiji in 2000. She coordinates the MZC’s prison program serving more than 160 inmates in 14 state institutions. She is active in Milwaukee with the Committee for Interfaith Understanding and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as well as currently serving on the Board of Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, IN